Habiba Sarobi is levying punitive fines -- fines for arriving late and fines for failing to silence cell phones during meetings. The penalties are a major part the governor of Bamiyan's strategy to overhaul the work ethic of her province, a place made famous by the Taliban's destruction of giant Buddhas in 2001.
Though it is still early in her reform effort, some provincial officials quietly express surprise at the progress already made. At one recent public function, for example, several functionaries showed up early, a fact practically unheard of elsewhere in Afghanistan. Already Sarobi is Afghanistan's first and only female governor. If her experiment in punctuality succeeds, she would also become the first governor to instill in bureaucrats a healthy respect for time and discipline anywhere in the country. "One man paid the fine this morning," she declares with a mischievous smile.
In a country still ravaged by conflict, and where corruption and nepotism are rampant, late arrivals at meetings may seem like an outlandish issue -- one too trivial to bother with amid pressing economic and social concerns. But for Bamiyan, discipline may be the critical component in promoting economic growth. The province is fortunate to be one of the most stable in Afghanistan. But stability is both a blessing and a curse: with international attention focused on the more insecure provinces in the south and east, Bamiyan has been largely left to its own devices during the reconstruction process.
For Sarobi and other officials in the province, there is not a lot to work with other than their own ingenuity. Bamiyan's history -- going back to before the Soviet invasion -- is one of economic deprivation. As a province dominated by the Hazara community, who are racially distinct and face social segregation and discrimination throughout the country, Bamiyan has experienced years of neglect from successive rulers. While a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now working there, the absence of essential infrastructure makes it difficult for Bamiyan to capitalize on the benefits of their work.
According to Afghanistan's National Development Strategy, Afghanistan has rehabilitated 12,200 kilometers of roads since 2001. Only in the last year has the rehabilitation reached Bamiyan. So far the province has just one mile of asphalt, hardly enough to encourage investment in industries or tourism.
As Bamiyan does not tie into existing infrastructure networks, NGO aid does not yield the same benefits that it would in other provinces. The province enjoys renown for its fertile fields and agriculture, but farmers have difficulty in getting their produce to market because of the lack of roads. It has the potential for tourism, but no commercial flights land in the vicinity.
Sarobi has ideas for promoting growth. The tourism potential is ripe. But despite the province's spectacular beauty, fascinating history and linkage with contemporary events, tourism in Bamiyan could only provide small revenues. Agriculture and mining (the region has abundant iron and coal deposits) would seem to be the best engines for growth.
These days, Sarobi can usually be found multitasking: asking NGOs to invest in small scale units to help with milk and wool production; drawing up plans to extract iron in the Hajigak mines; flying off to New Zealand where she succeeded in persuading Wellington to provide a $1 million grant towards tourism development at a time when most of the international community has grave doubts about Afghanistan's security; or lobbying the central government to relocate the tiny airport so Bamiyan can retain its status as a world heritage site, an accolade bestowed on the remote valley in 2003 for its beauty and archeological treasures.
Sarobi is hands on, whether it is organizing a meeting at the spectacular lakes of Band-i Amir where she has had lakeside buildings removed to preserve the pristine beauty of the lake, or clambering up the steep scaffolding in front of one of the Buddhas on hearing an ancient relic had been discovered hidden in a small alcove.
"We hope we can have a regional museum here to keep the archeological finds," says Sarobi. It is a proposal that is endorsed by the director of National Museums in Kabul, Omara Khan Masoudi.
On the debate about the future of the Buddhas, she dismisses outlandish proposals to reconstruct them and says simply, "I would like them to be reconstructed using anastylosis" (a process where no new material is used, but the fragments are reattached to the existing structure wherever possible).
Sarobi's greatest contribution to the province's regeneration is perhaps the one that defies quantification -- serving as a role model for Afghan girls and women who desire to participate in civil society development. It is a space Sarobi herself has carved out after a long struggle, which began with discrimination within her own family.
After much persuasion, she speaks of childhood matter-of-factly, but with an underlying sadness. "The first stage of my life was very tough. My father, like all other men in Afghanistan, had an attitude of discrimination. He preferred my brothers to me. This affected me a lot. It affected me enough to [work hard and] show my family that I am here and I can do something. I would work hard and always come first in class to show I could do better than my brothers," she says.
It was not her father, however, who was convinced by this determination, but her uncles who encouraged Sarobi to continue studying: "This changed my personality at that time. In university I became involved with some student unions during the [era of Soviet occupation in the 1980s]. I was a very emotional person. But in middle age, I said it is not good for a woman to be emotional but better to be strong. I witnessed many crimes during the mujahedeen time and I decided to stop crying."
Sarobi helps both her sister and daughter overcome the prevalent disadvantages facing females in Afghan society. "I witness many bad attitudes towards women even among educated families," she says. In her own family she has found support from her husband whose own liberal views influence their children, two sons and a daughter. But Sarobi feels Afghan society has a long way to go.
"I hope that it will change," she said.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.